In an island chain that owes its entire existence to the presence of volcanoes, it’s no surprise that Pele, the goddess of Hawaii’s volcanoes, looms large in Hawaiian myths and stories.
In the accounts around this fiery, volatile, and mysterious goddess that have been passed down through Hawaiian mooelo (stories passed down orally from person to person), you’ll discover that Pele—like many of the fierce gods and goddesses in other cultures including the Hindu goddess Kali—plays the role of both creator and destroyer.
The lava that flows from her fiery volcanoes formed the Hawaiian Islands and continues to expand the Big Island’s landmass. (Since Kilauea started its 1983 eruption, its lava flows have added 585 acres of new land to the Big Island!) The 2018 eruption even added a new black sand beach to the island at Pohoiki. However, alongside that act of creation came the destruction of 700 homes in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.
It’s a stark contradiction, one that’s also reflected in Pele’s personality. Sometimes, she appears as a beautiful young woman. Other times, she is an old, wrinkled Hawaiian tutu (grandmother). Those who cross her, snub her or underestimate her are often punished with fire and lava. However, those who honor her are granted mercy. In summary, the goddess Pele is a study in contradictions.
Now that Kilauea has once again resumed its activity, we thought it was a good time to explore the myths surrounding Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who calls this volcano her home. We’ll also explore a couple of misconceptions around the infamous “curse of Pele,” while offering a few simple ways you, as a new Hawaii resident, can offer your respect to this goddess and the culture that honors her.
The Story of Pele, the Eater of Land
The goddess Pele has been bestowed with a number of honorifics over the years. In the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll hear her referred to as “Madam Pele,” or “Tutu Pele.” She has also been called Pele-Honua-Mea (Pele of the sacred land) and Pele-Ai-Honua (Pele, the eater of the land).
However you choose to refer to her, it’s believed that she makes her home in the Halemaumau Crater at the top of Kilauea, Hawaii’s most active volcano—and one of the most active in the world.
Pele and her stories are deeply intertwined with Hawaiian culture. She both literally and mythologically came to these islands by canoe. The original Polynesian people who settled these islands brought the story of Pele with them during their ocean migration. Within the mythology of the ancient Polynesians, Pele was one of six daughters born to the goddess Haumea and the creator god, Kane.
And, as the stories about Pele are told, she herself also traveled by canoe to reach the Hawaiian islands.
The stories of exactly why Pele left the ancestral homeland of Kahiki are varied. One popular account tells of Pele falling in love with her sister’s husband. In some versions of the story, she seduces her sister’s husband and, in others, she kills him in a rage. As a result of these transgressions, she is banned from her homeland. In other, less dramatic versions, she was pushed out by a flood—or driven by a longing to travel.
Whatever the original reason, Pele brought her fiery temper and her penchant for taking whatever man piqued her interest to her new home. (Check out the story of Pele’s role in creating the ohia lehua tree. It all starts with spying a beautiful young man who she wants for her own…)
After hearing these creation stories and myths, you might think that Pele is a goddess of years gone by, one who’s not involved in today’s affairs. However, many people have felt her presence through the years, an occurrence that continues through present day.
Storied and Modern-Day Visitations from the Goddess Pele
For hundreds of years, people in the Hawaiian islands have reported mysterious sightings of the goddess Pele.
As we mentioned earlier, her appearance can vary dramatically. To some, she appears as a beautiful young woman. To others, she’s an older grandmother. Some report seeing her wandering with a small white dog at her side. In some stories, she appears as a beggar woman asking for food or assistance or a hitchhiker by the side of the road. The artist Herb Kawainui Kane believes he saw her admiring a mural he completed in the Kau District with a slight smile on her face. Some even see her in the lava flows. (Can you see her in this lava photo?)
Throughout all the sightings, one theme remains the same: Those who offer Pele aloha, respect, and assistance are spared from natural disasters, which range from lava flows to earthquakes to tsunamis. Those who act rude or dismiss her are often chased by lava flows or fire—or find all of their earthly possessions destroyed by their forces. One young Hawaiian chief named Kahawali snubbed Pele during a day of sled racing. She subsequently chased him on a flow of scorching lava, frightening him enough that he moved to Maui to escape her.
And then there’s the so-called “curse of Pele.” We’ll talk about that in the next section, along with some pointers for new residents on the traditional customs surrounding the goddess Pele.
Paying Your Respects to Pele
When you move to Hawaii, you’ll discover quickly that you’ve arrived in a land with its own distinct culture—that of the island’s original inhabitants. By taking the time to discover the nuances of the Hawaiian culture and explore its customs, you’ll pay respect to the Hawaiians who created it, and you’ll enjoy a much richer experience in the Aloha State.
So let’s explore a few of the traditional ways that Hawaiians offer their respect to Pele, who still looms large in the Hawaiian consciousness today.
Pele’s Curse: Does Bad Luck Follow Those Who Remove Rocks and Sand from Hawaii?
Whether or not Pele’s curse is fact or fiction, we want to lead with an important distinction: Nowhere in Hawaiian chants, myths, or songs does it make mention of this curse, which is said to befall anyone who takes lava rocks home from Hawaii.
Instead, Pele’s curse is a recent superstition that’s inspired people to mail as many as 100 rocks a month to Haleakala National Park in Maui, begging park rangers to return them to the land and lift the curse of Pele.
One California man blames Pele’s curse for his mother’s death, the dissolution of his marriage, and the deterioration of his relationship with his son. He is by no means alone, with hundreds of people using the USPS to return lava rocks to the island they were taken from. Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants have even collected rocks from repentant tourists on their flights home.
Pele’s curse aside, here’s what you need to know about collecting lava rocks or black sand: It’s against the law to remove any kind of rocks, sand, or minerals from National Park Lands. Haleakala National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park were established to preserve these natural areas for generations to come, and removing items from these areas is directly antithetical to that mission.
Additionally, whether or not the goddess of Hawaii’s volcanoes is going to rain fire and lava on you, taking stones is considered a sign of disrespect, much like stealing from someone’s house.
In summary, as you’re exploring your new island home, leave rocks and sand where you find them—and take only pictures with you.
Offering Ohelo Berries to Pele
Now, here’s a tradition rooted in ancient Hawaiian tradition, as recorded in Mary Kawena Pukui’s Olelo No Eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings:
Mai hahaki oe i ka ohelo o punia i ka ua noe.
Do not pluck the ohelo berries lest we be surrounded by rain and fog.
From this proverb, a tradition has evolved: Don’t pick ohelo berries on the way to the Kilauea crater. That way, it will stay clear enough so you can see your way there.
Then, once you reach the crater, you can pick and eat berries, but only after you toss the first one in the direction of the crater as a tribute for Madam Pele.
On the way back, you’re welcome to eat as many as you like, but make sure to leave some for the nene geese. This threatened species absolutely loves them!
Respect Your Elders
Finally, much like Aesop’s Fables, the stories around Tutu Pele reinforce an important ideal. The Hawaiian culture places particular emphasis on caring for our kupuna, our elders. The tales of woe that befall those who dismiss Tutu Pele serve to remind us how important it is to respect previous generations.
As you’re living in Hawaii, you’ll notice many of the ways people offer help, food, or assistance to the elderly. It’s our kuleana (responsibility) to care for our kupuna as a community. (And, hey, you never know when a seemingly innocent older woman might turn out to be Tutu Pele!)
Embracing the Myths of Hawaii
Living in Hawaii offers you the unique opportunity of living on American soil while discovering the culture of the Hawaiian people who originally settled this land. The more you embrace the opportunity to learn the stories, myths, cultural practices, traditions, and values of the Hawaiian people, the more you’ll get out of your stay in Hawaii. (And, who knows, you might fall in love enough to call the Hawaiian Islands your permanent home!)
Moving to the Big Island—or one of Hawaii’s other islands? With teams and warehouses on all four major islands, including two locations on the Big Island, we’re uniquely positioned to help you make a safe, easy, and affordable move. Just get in touch with us for a complimentary quote to get started.